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Freshen Up Your Virtual Meetings

Virtual Lean Coffee

two people and a kanban board
two people and a kanban board

Catching Your Breath

You know how it goes. Your team is busy. Really busy. It's wrestling every day with an avalanche of operational things.

You can't afford a separate meeting for every thought that arises. Conversely, if you do make that choice, you spend the whole week in meetings that don't turn into action.

Do you find there are a lot of issues that seem to be perpetually parked until 'some time next quarter'?

What if I told you about a method for discussing all the topics that the team cares about in a democratic way?

What if I told you about a meeting format that forces you to make deliberate choices around how you're spending the team's time?

Using this method, conversations remain tight. Nobody blathers on about irrelevant stuff. If they do, they quickly become self-aware because of the timer.

Introducing ๐Ÿฅ๐Ÿฅ๐Ÿฅ Lean Coffee.

coffee at various stages
coffee at various stages

The Lean Coffee structure is easy to learn and easy to facilitate. Lean Coffee emerged as Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith's proposal for creating structured but agenda-less meetings.

It combines the concept of Lean Thinking with the informality of meeting in a cafe for a chat.

The process is pretty simple...

  1. At the start of the meeting all participants supply ideas for conversational topics.
  2. For each idea, they supply a quick 1โ€“2 sentence summary containing what the topic is and why it might be interesting / worthwhile to discuss.
  3. The group votes on the topics to create a democratically ranked backlog.
  4. Set a timer for 5 minutes and start discussing the top-voted topic.
  5. At regular intervals the group votes on whether to continue discussing the topic or to move on to the next one. 50โ€“50 votes get interpreted as "move on".

The result of this process is a democratically sourced, prioritized and time-boxed set of discussions. Lean coffee sessions often end up covering unexpected ground while still respecting the value of the participant's time.

The good news is that you can easily run a Lean Coffee regardless of anyone's physical location.

Doing This Virtually

There are plenty of simple tools that can enable your team to run a virtual lean coffee session.

One tool we like for this is Trello because it has a nice visual interface (and it's free). As a bonus, some helpful folks in the community have made a Power Up called Leaner Coffee. It includes the display of a timer and allows you to use distributed voting on your board...

trello lean coffee board
trello lean coffee board

Even if you don't use that particular Power Up, you can easily set up the board with the columns shown in the image. You will still need to enable Trello's homegrown Power Up for voting.

You can also use a Google timer though you'll still want the timer to be visible to all participants throughout the meeting. This visibility is key to maintaining their sense of shared ownership with respect to timekeeping.

google timer 5 mins
google timer 5 mins


How many topics can each person contribute?

We don't usually limit this because the group gets to decide on the topics actually discussed.

How many votes does each person get?

Three votes are recommended in the original process. Importantly, we suggest scaling the number of votes per person with the number of topics. Specifically, divide the number of topics by 4 and then round up to the nearest whole number. So 4 topics gives people 1 vote, 5โ€“8 topics gives them 2 votes, 9โ€“12 topics gives them 3 votes, and so forth.

When shouldn't we use a lean coffee?

Lean coffee isn't a solution to all meeting problems and so should be applied thoughtfully. Some examples of situations where lean coffee is not the best choice...

  • When the meeting involves 2โ€“3 people.
  • When there is already a clear, detailed agenda.
  • When you are meeting with customers.

Once you've run this kind of session a couple of times, it'll feel easy and you'll almost certainly find that your team wants to start holding such sessions regularly.

In that spirit, remember to keep the board you build available for your next session. The backlog of topics can be rolled over (though we recommend you clear them out when they become irrelevant or when nobody recalls what they were about ๐Ÿ˜€).

Give it a try and let us know how it goes. If you'd like support with facilitation and meetings, we'd love to help.

If your meetings need a bit more support, you might find our best-selling Fix Your Meetings program of interest. We'll help you make sure your meetings are a valuable use of everyone's time and energy.